Rabbi Rafael of Bershad (d. 1827) was a hassidic master best known for the
supreme value he placed on uncompromising truth. He was a disciple of Rabbi
Pinhas of Koretz (1726- 1791), one of the masters during the formative stage of
the hassidic movement.
Rabbi Rafael did not serve in a rabbinical post;
rather, he was an itinerant preacher who was based in Bershad – today a small
city in western Ukraine. Nor did he bequeath any writings, though some of his
conclusions are recorded in the works of his teacher. Rabbi Rafael is mostly
remembered in hassidic lore, where we find tales of his commitment to truth and
his aversion to anger. One tradition states that he never told a lie, and in
some accounts it was his unwillingness to bend the truth that led to his
untimely death. (See Professor Shnayer Z. Leiman’s article in Tradition 2007.)
The story is told that for a long time, Rabbi Rafael wanted tzitzit (ritual
fringes) that came from the Holy Land. Finally he managed to procure a piece of
cloth that had been prepared in the Land of Israel. He took the cloth to the
local tailor, so that the tailor would make the cloth into a garment with
tzitzit that could be worn. The tailor faithfully set about cutting and sewing
the cloth to order.
Alas, when it came to cutting a hole in the middle of
the cloth for Rabbi Rafael’s head, the tailor accidentally cut two holes! What
was the tailor to do now? He had destroyed the precious cloth! For a long time,
the tailor avoided Rabbi Rafael. What would he say to him? How could he explain
his mistake? Eventually, the tailor had no choice but to confess his error. With
tears streaming down his cheeks, the tailor told Rabbi Rafael what had
Rabbi Rafael responded in a soothing voice: “Don’t you know why
I need two holes?” He asked. “One hole is for my head; the second hole is to
challenge me not to get angry.”
In general when he lost money, Rabbi
Rafael would say: “It is enough that I lost this much money; do I need to also
sully my soul with anger?” Rabbi Rafael once pondered a strange reality: Torah,
as we know, is the best thing in the world. It benefits a person in this world
and in the next. Jewish sources are persistent regarding its supreme value and
its efficacy. Given that Torah is so beneficial, how is it possible that there
are instances when a person is not drawn to Torah? In theory, a person should
long with all his heart and soul to study Torah at every moment. Alas, the
reality, as we know, is far from this.
Rabbi Rafael explained: The truth
is that deep down, we do desire to learn Torah constantly. But we have sunk into
the material dross of this world. The Torah looks at us in this state and says,
“I don’t want such a person studying me!” When the person then sits down to
learn, the Torah itself finds ways to distract the potential havruta (study
partner). “Get a cup of coffee before you study me,” suggests the Torah; “Why
don't you just check your email first”; “Clean up and then we will learn.” It is
the Torah proffering these excuses in a bid to avoid studying with the person
who is not pure of heart.
Rabbi Rafael did not leave it there; he added a
remedy for the dire situation when a person wants to study but the Torah is not
interested: If a person meditates on repentance before sitting down to learn
Torah, then the person comes to the study session as a penitent rather than as
an unrepentant sinner. The Torah welcomes such a havruta.
concluded by explaining that this is indicated in the verse, “The beginning of
wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10); before the wisdom of Torah, a person
should meditate on the awe of God, repenting for previous wrongs before sitting
down with Torah as a havruta.
The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes
Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. His book, Relics
for the Present, was recently published by Maggid Books and Pardes.